In chapter 10 of What’s So Amazing About Scripture?, I argue that belief in the Bible’s truthfulness does not mean that our interpretations and translations are without error. We can be confident in the Bible’s infallibility, even while we are humbled by the fact our interpretations are fallible. I then give the example of a heavily debated text that has seen Catholic and Protestant scholars at loggerheads for centuries. I then provide an alternative reading that suggests both sides may be wrong. 

The verse is James 2:14: What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?

The meaning of “save him” in James 2:14

The meaning of the two final words (“save him”) influence major doctrinal conclusions.

Centuries ago, Catholic theologians, seeking to refute the arguments of the Reformers, lent heavily on this verse.

This verse helps us answer important questions: Can anyone save themselves? If so, do they do so by faith-in-grace alone, or by faith-and-works? And does saving faith automatically result in a life dedicated to social justice?

Yet, whose “good” is in mind—the person with the faith, or someone else’s? And does ‘save’ here refer to receiving salvation, or something else? And does ‘him’ here refer to the one claiming to have faith, or someone else?

Some Catholic theologians have used this verse to “argue” that salvation is not by faith alone. It is by faith and works. Protestants however argue that salvation is by faith alone, though true faith will never stay alone—faith will inevitably express itself in works. The problem with the former view is that it flatly contradicts Paul’s message that we are saved by faith in God’s grace alone, not by works, in which case the principle of “Scripture interpreting Scripture” makes this view unlikely. The problem with the latter view is that, if the text effectively means “shall such faith (without works) save one’s self,” then the Catholic reading seems more like what James is saying. (This is why the Reformer Luther suggested James was not inspired.) Also, if saving faith inevitably results in compassionate action, then why does James even need to encourage us to do it? And what security of salvation is there for a professing believer who has not recently engaged in acts of service?

This impasse gives rise to continued study of these texts, as well as other views such as the compelling, albeit minority, interpretation[1] that asserts that both Catholic and Protestant scholars have been wrong all along. This view claims the truth has been hidden in plain sight—the verses before and after provide the context to better guide our interpretation, and as for the phrase “save him,” the word translated ‘save’ can also be translated ‘rescue or help’ and ‘him’ refers not to the person with faith but to ‘the poor man,’ mentioned earlier in the chapter (v3 and v6, though the NIV obscures the second reference by translating it as ‘the poor’ rather than ‘the poor man.’). This generic poor man is still in mind in the subsequent verse about people who have no food and clothing (v15). In other words, properly read, James in effect asks, “What good is it for others if someone claims to have faith but does not express their faith in practical love? Can such a faith rescue the poor man?”

The result of our chosen interpretation of this passage is substantial. By the Catholic view, we are saved in part by compassionate action to others. By the traditional Protestant view, truly saved people automatically act compassionately. In contrast, this reading says it is possible to be saved and yet tragically we do not engage in compassionate action, but should be encouraged to do so—a view which sits much better with the Bible’s larger teaching on social justice: all too often God’s people leverage their faith to benefit themselves alone and fail to utilize it to make a positive difference in a suffering world. Indeed, what good is it for others who suffer if our faith does not overflow in acts of service to them?

The basis of this alternative reading of James 2:14

Despite initially dismissing this view, I am now mostly personally persuaded by it. Consider a few things that support it:

1) The literary context is about practical love to a generic ‘poor man’. The verses before speak about helping ‘the poor man,’ not discriminating, the royal law of love and showing mercy to the needy. In other words, the subject has not changed. ‘The poor man’ has been in view all along. He is mentioned twice in v3 and, again, in v6, though the NIV obscures this by translating it, ‘the poor.’

2) Confirming this, the verses that follow speak about helping people without food and clothing, moving beyond mere words to helpful action. This way faith is alive not dead in the world (v17, 26). It distributes clothing and food to those without (v15–16). It completes the faith in the heart with loving actions on the outside (v22). Even the story that follows about Rahab illustrates this—she believes in the God of the spies, then expresses that faith by helping the spies in need (v25). Mercy to the needy is the literary context before and after. All James’ talk about the “use” and the “good” of faith pertains not to the person with faith but to the beneficiaries of the believer’s faith-motivated compassion. James who is influenced by the Sermon on the Mount throughout his letter, seems to pick up the language of Jesus in Matthew 5:13: “If salt loses its saltiness … what good is it …?”

3) The Greek word for ‘save’ can refer to helping someone in desperate need not only spiritual salvation. James uses this same word in the first way in 5:15 (‘make the sick person well’), as does Jesus when speaking of healing people physically. When James speaks of spiritual salvation he usually adds ‘your/their soul’ (1:21, 5:20) which is not present here.

4) James elsewhere does not speak about anyone saving themselves. In the other four places James uses the word ‘save’ he always speaks of the ‘saver’ saving someone else not ‘getting one’s self saved’. In 1:21 the Word of God saves the person who accepts it. In 4:12 God saves. In 5:15 the prayer of faith saves the person prayed for. In 5:20 one person helps another repent and be restored.

5) Though there are a lot of words between verse 6 (‘the poor man’) and 14 (‘him’), in ancient Greek writing this does not necessarily signal a change of person referred to. For example, in Matthew 22:15 ‘him’ refers to Jesus who was last explicitly mentioned some 220 words before, in verse 1. As point 1 bears out, the poor man is in view all along.

6) As for the subsequent section about, like Abraham, being “counted righteous” before God, James comments on the texts of Genesis 15–22 with a different focus than the way Paul does—as many Protestant scholars have long pointed out, Paul focuses on the positional righteousness of salvation, James on the practical righteousness of sanctification.

[1] By biblical scholars like Michael Eaton and RT Kendal. I have heard these men, who were both mentored and shaped by the great pastor-theologian Martin Lloyd Jones, say that in his final years he believed the same.

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